Interview by Dalia Al-Aqidi of Al Hurra Middle East Television on International Women's DayLaura Bush, First Lady
March 1, 2004
The White House
QUESTION: Mrs. Bush, women's groups around the world chose March 8th to be their day. It was designated by the United Nations to be International Women's Day. What does this day mean to you?
MRS. BUSH: Well, it's a wonderful day to be able to celebrate the contributions of women around the world. In March 2002, I spoke at the U.N. for International Women's Day and I talked about the women in Afghanistan and the way American women are standing with them and wishing them the very best, and the things that our government, the United States government, has done to try to make sure little girls in Afghanistan are educated and women have rights in Afghanistan so they can leave their homes, for instance, by themselves during the day.
But also for me, personally, International Women's Day is a great day to celebrate the strong women in my life. It's a good time for all of us, really, to think about our mothers and our grandmothers and all the sacrifices they made, all the mothers and grandmothers in the world who sacrificed for the well being of their children.
QUESTION: In your November 17, 2001, radio address to the U.S., you said the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. What did you mean by that?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I think that if you marginalize half of the society, if you keep women at home with really unnecessary restrictions so that, for instance, in the case of the women in Afghanistan who couldn't work, you reduced them to being beggars, you reduced their children to being beggars because they couldn't leave their homes. They were widows in many cases, and weren't able to work or even go out to look for food for their children. And that's a way to keep a whole people subjugated. And that's what I meant by it.
Q: You have criticized the Taliban and Muslim extremists for their treatment to women. But some claim that it's justified by religion or traditions. What's your reaction to that?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I don't -- I'm certainly not an expert on Islam in any way. But I know that Islam as well as Christianity, and other religions around the world, don't believe in putting people down, in subjugating people to tyranny but, instead, believe in the intrinsic value and worth of every human being as a child of God. And that's what I believe most religions think, that people deserve respect and dignity and that sort of treatment, men and women and children.
Q: Even though Afghanistan now is free of Taliban, yet millions of women are prevented from registration -- registering to the first elections in Afghanistan, mostly by traditional and tribal elements.
What would help the women who went through similar circumstances to get accustomed to the new reforms or to face the new challenges?
MRS. BUSH: Well, certainly education is one of the most important things we can do for people around the world, for countries to be able to prosper, to -- once peace is secured, to be able to reach prosperity for women and children, and all people to be educated really helps.
But I also think it's important for people around the world to reach out to the women in Afghanistan, to let them know that we're standing with them and that we want to help in any way we can. In the United States, women didn't get the right to vote until early in the -- the last century. And many, many women and men marched and protested so that women could vote.
And as we've looked around the world, as we've seen emerging democracies in central Europe, for instance, and in other places around the world, and we've seen people getting the right to vote for the first time, it should make all of us aware of how important that right is and how we shouldn't -- certainly in our country, for instance -- take it for granted.
Q: What do you think about certain countries' efforts to ban religious expression, such as scarves for Muslim women in schools, or wearing crosses?
MRS. BUSH: Well, in the United States, because we are a country of immigrants, because of that, we have learned to accept differences. In fact, that's what makes our country so rich, is our diversity. It makes us rich culturally. We have every religion, we have people from all parts of the world who now call the United States home. And all that great confluence of ideas that came from every culture has made our country particularly diverse. And because of that, though, we've been more willing to accept differences, to accept the idea that in some religions you would want to wear a cover or a cross or a yarmulke. I admire that about the people in my country. I admire that tolerance that we have for each other.
Q: The U.S. wants to establish women's rights and equality in the Middle East with proposals such as training women to educate girls. Some in the Arab world were upset or complained that reforms must come from within, not to be imposed from the outside. How do you address this issue?
MRS. BUSH: Well, of course, I believe that. I believe that reforms must come from within, and that if the people of a country are invested in their reforms, because they developed them themselves, they've written the constitution, they've participated in the debates, then they are much more likely to defend those reforms that they have come up with.
But at the same time, I think that we can learn from each other. It took us a very long time in our country to have a true democracy. We started off, the United States started with a wonderful constitution written by brilliant people. But we didn't live that constitution; we had slavery for another almost 100 years after that constitution. That's what we don't want other countries to have to go through, and that's the very long time it took.
So as reforms need to come from within, also we can learn from each other. We can see what other countries have gone through as they develop to democracy and we can make our own emerging democracies easier to develop because we can learn from what other countries have done and what they've suffered as they've finally been able to build a democracy.
Q: Critics of American culture and especially the American media and American entertainment, they claim that the U.S. is already trying to impose values of promiscuity or selfishness in the Arab world. Is this a fair assessment?
MRS. BUSH: No. That's not a fair assessment.
Certainly, when people look at American television or read some American books or listen to some American music, they get a view of America that's not a full view, that's not a real view of what the American people are like.
I met recently with a group of women who had studied here at the University of Nebraska. They were teachers from Afghanistan. And they had come over to study so they could go back to Afghanistan and train more teachers. And while they were here, they lived with families in Nebraska.
And they were so amazed at the way those families were. They were amazed that these families were religious. And, in fact, Americans are very religious. They were amazed at how honest they were.
And I think when you in any part of the world see only American television or listen only to some parts of American music, you get a very unrealistic picture about the way the people of the United States really are. And I hope that people around the world will look at the United States and see what people are really like in the United States.
Q: In the 2002 Arab Human Development Report that was released by the United Nations Development Program, and written by a number of Arab scholars, one of the findings notes that 65 million Arab adults are illiterate. Two-thirds of them are women and about 10 million children are out of school.
What would it mean to the women -- to the region if women were given more access to education?
MRS. BUSH: Well, it would just make a huge difference if women could read and if women were really a part of the societies. When you deny women an education, then you've denied half of the population the chance to succeed and the chance to contribute to a society and to a culture.
It means a lot for economic progress and for prosperity. But it also means so much for the welfare of children. Women in every society are the ones who make most of the choices for their children. They make the choices of what foods to serve, they many times make the health care choices for their children. And if they are educated, they are more likely to be able to make informed choices so that their children don't suffer from malnutrition, so that their children can receive the best health care.
They also -- educated women want their children to be educated, and they make good choices for their children. They make the choice to send their children to school, for instance, or they can help their children at home with their homework.
Literacy is really one of the most important functions of a society. And being able to make sure that children and adults in every society are educated is really one of the most important functions of a government. And certainly we feel that way in the United States.
Q: Speaking of children, you're backing up a proposed $500 million hospital to be built in Basra in Iraq.
MRS. BUSH: That figure is not correct.
Q: I know it's a big hospital. But yet that project is facing problems on the Hill. Do you expect that this project will pass through?
MRS. BUSH: I certainly hope so. And in fact, today, a number of people will be here to discuss this very issue. And that is a way to build a children's hospital in Iraq that is a teaching hospital, so that nurses can be trained there, doctors can be trained there, and so that the children of Iraq can receive the very best possible health care.
I understand that leukemia is a childhood disease in Iraq where there are increasing rates of leukemia and leukemia is very treatable, childhood leukemia is very treatable. And so those are the sorts of health care we want the Iraqi children to be able to have.
I know that the mothers of those children want that for their children. And I hope that we can work together with the people of Iraq and the mothers and fathers of Iraq, to make sure that their children receive really excellent health care.
Q: My last question would be about the Iraqi women. How do you see their role in the society now?
MRS. BUSH: Well, the good news that came out of Iraq that the Governing Council has been able to write this agreement so they can begin to write the constitution is very good news. And even though I don't know what all is in that agreement, I do understand that women's rights are protected in that agreement, and I like that very much.
I want the women of Iraq to know how much American women stand with them. We want them to be successful. We want the people of Iraq to have peace and to be able to build their country in a good and secure way, so that the children of Iraq have a future that's free from violence and that's happy and with well being for all the children and the people of Iraq.
Q: Mrs. Bush, thank you very much for having us.
MRS. BUSH: Thank you very much.
END 11:15 A.M. EST